Saturday, July 7, 2018

IELTS - A Quick Rundown of the Test and Where to Start

What is the IELTS?

The IELTS, or International English Language Testing System, is a language proficiency test given by millions of candidates the world over. Teens and adults take the test as part of university application procedures at undergraduate or postgraduate level, or to acquire a visa, emigrate, work or train. 

Scores are given in bands from 1 to 9 (1 being the lowest, 9 being the highest) with results available two weeks after the written part of the test was taken (13 days to be exact). Scores are awarded for each of the four sections tested and you are also given an overall score as a whole or half band, so for example, you can score a 7.0 in Listening, 6.0 in Reading, 7.5 in writing and a 7.5 in Speaking. Your final score would be a 7.0 overall. What constitutes a passing score depends on why you're taking the IELTS exam and who's asking to see your results. 

Which module do I need?

The test offers two modules. Which one you'll take depends on the reason why you need to obtain the IELTS certificate:

  • For those who wish to start or continue their university studies at a higher level, or work at a professional organization, the IELTS Academic Module is required. 
  • For those who want to move to an English-speaking country, study but not at degree level, begin vocational training or work in sectors where academic knowledge of English is not a prerequisite, then the IELTS General Training Module is needed.

How many parts does the test have and what does each part include?

Academic Module


  • 4 parts, 40 questions in total
  • questions: fill-in the blanks, multiple choice, matching
  • you hear it once
  • it lasts approximately 30 minutes
  • 10 minutes are given at the end to transfer your answers from the question paper to the answer sheet


  • 1 hour
  • 3 texts (3 sections)
  • 40 questions in total
  • variety of tasks (fill-in the blanks, multiple choice, true-false-not given questions, match headings to paragraphs or statements to authors, summary or diagram completion)
  • no extra time is given at the end to transfer your answers from the question paper to the answer sheet
Click to see sample essay questions


  • 1 hour
  • 2 tasks
  • task 1: report (summary / description)
    • report based on: 
      • graph, table, chart (summarize the main facts seen in one or more graphs)
      • process (describe development or cycle)
      • device, machine (explain how it works)
    • minimum 150 words
    • recommended time: 20 minutes
  • task 2: essay
    • types of essays:
      • opinion
      • for-against
      • problem-solution
    • minimum 250 words
    • recommended time: 40 minutes
    • counts twice as much as task 1
  • grading:
    • task achievement
    • coherence & cohesion
    • lexical resource (vocabulary)
    • grammatical range & accuracy
Click to see a useful list of vocabulary words for the Speaking

  • 11-14 minutes
  • the test is recorded
  • 3 parts
  • part 1: introduction & interview
    • personal questions
    • familiar topics
    • 4-5 minutes
  • part 2: long turn
    • task / cue card is given
    • on the card there is a topic with points to cover
    • 1 minute preparation time given for you to make notes
    • you talk for 1-2 minutes
    • extra questions are asked to round off this part of the test
  • part 3: discussion
    • general questions related to part 2 topic
    • give your opinion, analysis, justification
    • 4-5 minutes
  • grading:
    • fluency + coherence (speech rate, organization, linking devices used)
    • lexical resource (vocabulary)
    • grammatical range & accuracy
    • pronunciation

General Training Module

The Listening and Speaking sections are exactly the same as the ones described above for the Academic Module. It is the Reading and Writing that change a bit.


General Training Reading

  • total time given remains the same
  • there are more than 3 texts, but the number of sections on this part of the test remains the same
    • sections 1 and 2 have 2 smaller texts each, with one set of questions following each text
    • section 3 has one longer text with two sets of questions following it
  • the types of texts candidates will have to deal with is also different: they will come from non-academic sources (for instance, a text could be taken from a company's handbook, a manual, or official document)
General Training Writing

  • the time and number of tasks remain the same
  • task 2 is an essay (no different from that seen in the Academic Module)
  • task 1 is not a descriptive report but a letter
    • no addresses are needed
    • begin with "Dear..., "
    • letters are either to 
      • friends
      • acquaintances
      • organizations / professional institutions
Click for tips on how to write letter of complaint

    • depending on the recipient of your letter, you will need to write
      • formally 
      • informally
      • semi-formally
    • the types of letters you will need to know how to write are:
      • letters of complaint
      • letters giving information
      • letters asking for information

Where do I start?
There are several places to start from.
  • Find out what the person, university or organization that wants to see your IELTS certificate is asking for. 
    • what module do you need to take?
    • what band score are they asking for?
    • when is the deadline for you to present your test results to them?
  • Search online for information from the university you wish to apply to, especially the faculty / department of studies which has the courses you want to attend. 
  • Contact the people you plan to train with or work for and see what module and band score is needed.
  • Join Facebook groups to get feedback on questions you might have, read test-taker experiences or hook up with speaking partners.
  • Join Google+ communities to find information that could guide you in your efforts.
  • Sign up with a good IELTS training center or find a tutor. There might be competent people to help you in your area, but if there aren't, find help online. 
    • I suggest finding a good online service to correct and give you tips on your essays, reports or letters. Although many candidates post their essays in Facebook groups and ask for comments or an approximate score, it is impossible to expect proper and thorough feedback (and most of the time, such posts are ignored). 
    • I also suggest a professional service to help you improve speaking. It's fine to have a speaking partner who's the same level as you to practice questions with, but if both of you have weak oral skills to begin with, how will you improve? Perfecting your speaking means someone with experience preparing candidates to take the IELTS can give you advice how to score higher and point out your mistakes.
  • Use online blogs that deal with the IELTS to get help.
    • find sample essay questions and answers, tips, useful vocabulary words for writing and speaking, step-by-step ways to tackle the reading and listening sections (you could start with this blog's IELTS section here
    • find free online resources from official IELTS websites (for example, find practice tests with answers to check how you did here and here
  • Focus on the areas that are graded. I mentioned the four sections that make up the grades for writing and speaking above in the Academic Module.These are the things examiners are paying attention to and marking, so it is vital that you know what to do well in, in order to score a higher grade.
    • for writing 
      • task achievement
      • coherence & cohesion
      • lexical resource (vocabulary)
      • grammatical range & accuracy
    • for speaking
      • fluency + coherence (speech rate, organization, linking devices used)
      • lexical resource (vocabulary)
      • grammatical range & accuracy
      • pronunciation
      Work on each of these sections and find out exactly what these sections mean, what band descriptors are (read my blog IELTS: How to Grade Your Writing) and what marks examiners award based on your answers.
  • Find a test center near you and sign up after you have done a practice test in timed conditions. If your scores in the listening and reading sections are passing scores for the institution you wish to go to or the employer you will work for, then you might be able to take the test quite soon. However, this all depends on whether you are comfortable writing and speaking, if you plan on working by yourself to prepare or will sign up to attend an intensive course offered by an educational institution which specializes in preparing candidates for the test. What is important to know is that the British Council and IDP centers in various countries offer free access to an online 30-day preparation course the minute you register to take the test with them.
  • Organize a work schedule once you know when you're sitting the exam. The ideal thing would be to listen to English, practice writing essays, speak with a partner in English, and read texts in English on a daily basis, but if that's not possible, pace yourself until your exam date. Make a schedule and stick to it. The more you work on your English, the higher the chances of getting the score you need the first time round.

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